Fergie, Wigan and Referees


“We’re going to play the 12 men.” So said my friend Edward on Boxing Day of 2011 when Latics were due to play a league match at Old Trafford. He recounted the many controversial refereeing decisions that had gone in United’s favour aganst Wigan over the years.This match was to end as any kind of contest after Conor Sammon was sent off after 40 minutes, with Wigan 1-0 down.

The ESPN Soccernet match report later in the day stated that “There is no doubt Sammon’s arm did end up in Carrick’s face, offering referee Phil Dowd the opportunity to send him off. However, it did appear the Wigan man was attempting to use it as a barrier to shield a bouncing ball from his opponent.There was no malice, and very little force, behind the action and Latics chief Roberto Martinez was not on his own in believing his side had been harshly treated.And, as good sides do, United quickly exploited the situation.”

My friend was angry, but not surprised, at the sending off. United did exploit the situation, beating a demoralised Latics 5-0.

Last night the tables were turned and Manchester United had a man sent off against Real Madrid. The Spanish team duly exploited the situation and knocked United out of the Champions League. Reports suggest that Ferguson was so distraught that he did not attend the after match press conference, sending his assistant in his stead.

There will be debate for years to come as to whether Nani’s high kick in the chest of his opponent merited a red card. The cynic might say that an English referee would not have had the bravery to give the red card, even if he believed it to be appropriate. Foreign referees are not intimidated in the same way by Ferguson and United’s huge home support.

I have not been in touch with my friend, Edward, for a while. He has a long list of those refereeing decisions that have plagued Wigan in their meetings against the Red Devils. He has some legal training and if asked what he thought about Nani’s red card he might change the context. For example, if it were a Man U-Wigan match and a Latics player did the same as Nani – what would have happened?

Most Wiganers will feel sad that another English team has been knocked out of the UCL. By the middle of next week the Premier League will almost certainly have no representation in the last eight of the competition. Ferguson tends to polarise public opinion. Love him or loathe him, he continues to behave in the same way as he has done for years.

I don’t remember Roberto Martinez failing to attend a post match press conference. His Wigan teams have been so unjustly treated by referees for so long, particularly highlighted when they have played the Red Devils. If Ferguson were to take over at Wigan – most unlikely of course – would referees look more kindly on the Latics? Would he be muzzled to the same degree that Martinez has been?

Maybe Ferguson was right not to attend the press conference, where he might have said things that could get him into trouble with UEFA. However, I find it hard to imagine Roberto Martinez backing out in a similar situation.

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An hour before any Wigan Athletic game is due to start I like to trawl along to the official club website and look for news of the team lineup. I did it last weekend and got an immediate sense of foreboding. Gohouri in for Alcaraz and only one winger in the lineup. A return to playing Jordi Gomez on the right wing? A question of pack your team with midfield players to stifle the opposition? Then maybe bring on another attack minded player later? Was this to be the way to get a good result against another struggling team?

My sense of foreboding was to be temporarily lifted in the first few minutes with Latics going close to scoring on a couple of occasions. However, this was to be only a temporary respite. Wigan were playing without any attacking player on the right. Gomez would track back to help Boyce when the opposition attacked on their left, then move back to a central midfield position to receive the ball. As the half progressed a nervy QPR started to get on top. Their nerves were calmed after 32 minutes when James McCarthy idiotically palmed the ball away from a Barton corner. Helguson scored the resulting penalty with ease. The situation was exacerbated in the 45th minute when Gohouri ‘s trip on Campbell gave Buzsaky the chance to curl a wonderful free kick in off the post.

Martinez brought on Conor Sammon after the break for McArthur – an attacking move but still leaving Wigan with only one real wide player, Victor Moses. However, Albert Crusat was to be brought on the 61st minute, with Latics scoring four minutes later. Set pieces really have not been Wigan’s speciality in the Martinez era and when I saw Hugo Rodallega stride up to take a free kick it did not ease my sense of foreboding. I had visions of his kick hitting the spectator on the back row of the stand behind the goal, but had a pleasant surprise as he stroked the ball home with aplomb from 25 yards. Well done, Hugo! However, after 73 minutes the referee gave QPR a ridiculous second penalty, once more against Gary Caldwell, but Al Habsi pulled off a wonderful save. Once again the goalkeeper had been Latics best player and kept us in the game. The nail in the coffin came when Tommy Smith hit a beauty from 30 yards from open play in the 81st minute.

The Good

Another goal for Hugo Rodallega who is regaining his form. Yet another excellent goalkeeping display from Ali Al Habsi.

The Bad

The last time I had that same kind of foreboding feeling was when I saw the team sheet against Bolton in mid October. We had only one wide player – with James McCarthy nominally on the left wing – and the end result was a 3-1 defeat to a struggling team. This was like déjà vu.

Who knows what might have happened had James McCarthy not palmed away the ball after 32 minutes. It changed the game, giving QPR that confidence that they did not have before. However, let’s not beat about the bush here. When you play with a lone central striker you need two natural wide players to provide an attacking threat and to give balance. The sight of Emmerson Boyce moving into the opponent’s half and putting in long crosses was depressing. No blame attached to Boyce here – what else could he do with nobody else supporting him on that side of the pitch?

During the Martinez era we have seen some good football mixed with farcical errors. More often than not individual errors have lost us matches, or their mistakes have proved to be turning points in converting potential victory into defeat. It is hard to blame the manager for individual errors. This is largely down to the players, probably related to their lack of self confidence. Martinez has to operate a relatively low budget, being unable to bring in the kind of experienced, hardened Premier League pro who demands exhorbitant wages. This means developing players within the club and getting others from overseas leagues or the lower divisions in England. Given the club’s financial restraints – and I applaud Dave Whelan on his insistence on coming close to balancing the books – it means that the club needs to operate a “farm system” to survive. Put simply we need to develop players and sell the odd one each summer to keep the whole thing going. The trick is to have the replacement player groomed to take over from the one due to depart. Last year Charles N’Zogbia was to be the departing star, Victor Moses his potential replacement. Unfortunately Moses struggled with injury for part of last season and just did not get enough appearances under his belt. The result has been that this season he has shown huge promise, but so often the final pass or shot has been lacking. Centre forward has been a problem position under Martinez. This season Rodallega has been off form and has not signed a new contract. Neither Di Santo not Sammon has shown sufficient consistency or self belief to command a regular place.

The manager has a difficult job in terms of the tight budget he has to work within and in getting players to come to what is perceived to be a small club. The irony of the situation is that this year we have probably as good a squad as we have had in the past seven Premier League seasons. It is that self-belief that remains lacking among the players, following an accumulation of horrendous thrashings against top four clubs and the frustrations of individual errors giving the points away against average, and often less than average, teams. A few weeks ago I commended Roberto Martinez on his tactical innovation of playing with three central defenders. It was a welcome change from a manager who had not shown such tactical flexibility in the past. If he has an Achilles heel as a manager then it is in this area.

So Martinez has shown that he is able to adapt his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal. He will almost certainly continue to pack his midfield and play with a lone centre forward. That is something I do not love, but which I can live with. However, I have to admit my frustration at his repeated tactic of playing either a centre forward or central midfield player on the flanks. Hugo Rodallaga has time and time again shown that he is not a left winger. He simply does not have the dribbling skills or the pace to play in that position. Neither do I want to see Franco di Santo or Conor Sammon assigned to the wings. If we have a lone centre forward let’s at least have two genuine wide players to pose an attacking threat on each side of the pitch. Please, please, please – let’s not see Jordi Gomez nominally on the right wing! Play him in his natural position in the centre of midfield.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 9 – Another excellent display. Kept Latics in the game.

Emmerson Boyce: 5 – Had to go off after 69 minutes. Has made too few appearances in the past two seasons. Let’s hope he can get back to the match fitness that is required for him to be a regular fixture.

Steve Gohouri: 5 – Lacks confidence. He has never had a long run inn the team in his natural position as a centre half.

Gary Caldwell: 5 – Is this controversial player a target for referees? I doubt whether the second half penalty given against him would have happened with most centre halves.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 – Once more tried hard but was left exposed at times.
James McCarthy: 5 – Giving away the penalty was not typical of him. He is a mature player for his age, but maybe the nerves are getting to him too.

Ben Watson: 5 – Solid, but uninspired.

James McArthur: 6 – Industrious as usual. Taken off at half time.

Jordi Gomez: 5 – Ineffective in his hybrid role. Substituted after 61 minutes.

Victor Moses: 6 – Tried hard despite the lack of good service coming to him.

Hugo Rodallega: 6 – Worked hard, scored an excellent free kick.


Conor Sammon: 5 – Huffed and puffed, but no end result.

Albert Crusat: – Did not get a lot of the ball. What a shame he was not on at the start.

Ronnie Stam: – took over from Boyce, but had a frustrating time.


Think of Stoke City and what comes to mind? The pulsating final game of last season when Hugo Rodallega’s goal sent us into raptures – safety assured? Let’s go further back in time. Historians might point out that Stoke City are the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1863, after Notts County who started a year earlier. Stanley Matthews – one of the greatest English players of all time – played 259 times for Stoke City, being 49 years old in his last season. The most fantastically skilful winger you could see in an era when full backs could play with ultimate thuggery and get away with it most of the time. He played 54 games for England, despite World War II taking away his “peak” years between 24 and 30 years of age. The superb goalkeepers – Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton – also played for Stoke for long periods. I warmly recall the era of Tony Waddington, a manager who believed in entertainment and the sheer artistry and elegance of Alan Hudson in his mid 1970s Stoke team, that made them a joy to watch.

Stoke City has a history of high quality football. They dwarf Wigan Athletic in their longevity, although their only notable success in all those years was in winning the League Cup in 1972. As befitting a club with such a long history they have a loyal and passionate support and stats tell us that the noise level of the crowd in their stadium is second to none in the Premier League.

So what do Wigan Athletic face at Stoke tomorrow? Sadly the days of good football at Stoke are no longer with us. They play a kind of football that would not be tolerated in other parts of the world. They are a blight upon the landscape of the Premier League. The pragmatist will say that Stoke are playing to their strengths – this is a valid argument – but is it unlikely that they could get away with it in other European countries. Frankly speaking, their football is ugly – they resemble the hideous Bolton teams under Sam Allardyce or even the “Crazy Gang” Wimbledon team of the 1980s.

Stoke are a big team, in the true sense of the word. So many of their players are physically large, and they can be very ruthless in their tacking. They get most of their goals from centres or set-pieces. So far this season 61% of their goals have come from the latter. Their pitch measures 100 meters by 64 meters, the lowest permissible by UEFA. There is certainly going to be a contrast in footballing styles between the teams. So far this season Stoke have played 721 long balls – the highest in the division – and Latics only 244, the lowest.

So Latics will be facing a truly physical team tomorrow at Britannia Stadium. Rory Delap has been out injured over recent weeks, but even if he does not make it they have Ryan Shotton available for their long throw-ins. Let’s not forget the skill they have on the wings with players like Mathew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who can put dangerous centres across for strikers of the quality of Peter Crouch, Kenwynne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. However, Latics have shown that they can match Stoke physically in the past. In the six matches they have played together in the Premier League, four have ended up in draws, with one win for each side.

For once the Premier League hierarchy have given Latics a favourable decision in rescinding Conor Sammon’s ridiculous red card at Old Trafford. Although Sammon is available he may not start, facing competition from Franco Di Santo and a Hugo Rodallega eager to end his goalscoring drought. The remainder of the team is likely to remain unchanged, although Martinez might be tempted to shore up his defence by playing Patrick Van Aanholt at left wing back. My hope is that good football can triumph over route one. Wigan Athletic can bear up to the physical pressures and head tennis that Stoke may throw at them and come back with a good result.